A Double Dose of Chekhov
Jay Scheib Stages ‘Platonov, or The Disinherited’
By ALEXIS SOLOSKI
Published: January 5, 2014
A century and a half ago, Anton Chekhov wrote a play while still a medical student. Never performed or published in his lifetime, it was discovered in a locked box years after his death. This sprawling 20-character work, left untitled, has subsequently appeared as “Play Without Title,” “Without Fathers,” “A Country Scandal,” “Don Juan in the Russian Manner” and as the film “Unfinished Piece for the Player Piano.”
This week the director Jay Scheib will offer his own version. Or is that two versions?
On Wednesday night at 8, the play “Platonov, or The Disinherited” will have its premiere at the Kitchen. At the same time, “The Disinherited,” a film of the production — edited and broadcast live — will screen at the AMC Empire 25 Cinema in Midtown. Subsequent performances will also play the BAM Rose Cinemas at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Simulcasting has become a staple of the Metropolitan Opera and the National Theater in London. But it’s unusual to attempt it in a low-budget rendition of an obscure modernist muddle.
Then again, this is a Jay Scheib affair. An ambitious and technologically savvy director, Mr. Scheib has often integrated multiple video screens into his work. Recent excursions in theater, such as the pieces that comprise his “Simulated Cities/Simulated Systems” trilogy, have explored the power of simulacra and counterfeits, suggesting that “The Disinherited” film might actually feel more true and more real than the live performance that occasions it.
After an antic rehearsal in a low-ceilinged room in Midtown above several day spas, Mr. Scheib settled into a prop sofa to discuss “Platonov” and its film counterpart. Though he directs the theater department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Scheib looks more like a struggling artist than a tenured professor — a cotton shirt damp with sweat and strafed with holes, a froth of tousled hair.
His interest in video, he said, stemmed from a love of televised sports, which once led him to try to secure an internship at Madison Square Garden.
“When you go to sporting events, they’re way less effective than they are on television,” he said. On television, “you hear the ball hit the basket, you hear the breath of the performers, all that stuff is really present, whereas when you go to the game, it’s not.” Filming “Platonov” as “The Disinherited,” an idea that originated at La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls festival in California, signals a “continued effort to be more live than live,” he said.
In Mr. Scheib’s heady, libidinous pieces, the footage appears on screens above or alongside the performers, as it will at the Kitchen. Formerly, Mr. Scheib said, the video was there to enhance the live performance, “to amplify the real, the live, the source.” But this project reverses that relationship, as Mr. Scheib describes the live performance as little more than a pretext for the movie. “Now I’m privileging film over theater,” he said.
Joe Melillo, executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which has hosted Mr. Scheib’s productions of “A House in Bali” and “Powder Her Face,” wrote in an email that the appeal and difficulty of Mr. Scheib’s work lies in “grappling with the live filming against the live actors.” Mr. Melillo added, “It’s a fascinating aesthetic encounter.”
But why encounter “Platonov”? It’s not hard to imagine why Chekhov consigned it to the strongbox. A hectic mix of farce, melodrama and social-realist tragedy, which would run nearly six hours if uncut, the play contains too many characters, too many scenes and too many disquisitions on class relations.
Even Chekhov seemed to sense this. “You know yourself that your play is a lie,” his brother Alexander once wrote to him. Chekhov would later filch most of its best bits for “Uncle Vanya” and “The Cherry Orchard.”
Mr. Scheib has already adapted several seemingly unplayable texts, like the 900-page science-fiction novel that became “Bellona, Destroyer of Cities” and an abstruse article in The Philosophical Quarterly that inspired “World of Wires.”
“Taking on big unwieldy texts is a habit I’m trying to kick,” he said, unconvincingly.
And “Platonov,” for all its imperfections, has attracted admiring adapters such as Michael Frayn and David Hare. Mr. Scheib’s version features rather more Nirvana references and nudity. (He is, after all, the director who adorned scenes of “Powder Her Face” with 25 naked young men.) The script centers on several women who pursue affairs with the married Platonov, a former intellectual, even as they tumble toward social and economic ruin.
That theme of financial precariousness resonates with Mr. Scheib, who observed of his cast that “nobody is making enough of a fee to do just this and pay their rent.” He also admitted to begging and borrowing many of the scenic elements. He even entertained the notion of a smaller, less technologically inflected show.
For a while Mr. Scheib did not know if he could interest movie theaters in broadcasting “The Disinherited.” He threatened, as he often has before, to strip “Platonov” of its mechanical components: “No cameras, probably no light cues, just bodies.”
But the Brooklyn Academy of Music and AMC both came through, and now moviegoers can negotiate Mr. Scheib’s work alongside Junior Mints and “RoboCop” previews. Mr. Scheib said he couldn’t predict what sort of audience members “The Disinherited” would entice or how they would respond. And he may never really figure it out. As in his last show at the Kitchen, “World of Wires,” Mr. Scheib has inserted himself onstage, wielding one of the cameras that films the drama, which makes it difficult for him to sneak out to the AMC.
Asked why he didn’t simply hire a camera technician, he worried that an outsider might not be able to “learn how to disappear” into the action. He also said that he continued to direct, even onstage. Mr. Scheib and his cast members rehearse together everyday, even after a show has opened. At the Without Walls festival, they would begin each session with 20 pages of notes.
Such perfectionism might annoy some actors, but Mr. Scheib has attracted a crowd of performers eager to work with him again and again, like Sarita Choudhury, late of “Homeland.”
“After doing a TV show or a film, working with Jay feels like a necessity,” she wrote in an email. “His work is so physical and allows you to break all rules of realism, except of course the emotional ones.”
Acting for both a film and a stage production at the same time would seem a terrific challenge. But it is one that cast members embraced as they took off dresses, slugged vodka and brandished knives while twin cameras orbited. Mr. Scheib seemed pleased, smiling and sweating in the center of what he called “a little circus, a little dance and a little football.”
A version of this article appears in print on January 6, 2014, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Double Dose of Chekhov.